By Katy Reckdahl, The Times-Picayune
The laid-off nursing assistant with two small children needs only a few months’ rent to stave off homelessness. The mentally ill man who lived with his sister before Hurricane Katrina may require an apartment for the rest of his life, plus someone to check in on him. The 18-year-old who aged out of the state’s foster system shows promise but needs a mentor, job training and stable housing. The city of New Orleans wants to find ways to address the needs, however wide-ranging, of each of these homeless people through a 10-year “plan to end homelessness” that Mayor Mitch Landrieu will announce today.
The 34-page plan is a road map for how the city will address its astronomical homeless population, which more than doubled in the years after Hurricane Katrina and now stands at approximately 6,500, one of the highest in the nation in sheer numbers despite the city’s modest size.
The planning process started last summer after Landrieu hired the city’s first “homelessness czar,” Stacy Horn-Koch. It coupled the work of local panels of homeless advocates, neighborhood leaders and businesspeople with input from national experts. Homeless advocates from other cities brought ideas that are working elsewhere.
Other cities have had success with carefully run “low-barrier” shelters that don’t turn away people who arrive drunk or high or with untreated mental illness. The idea is simply to earn the trust of “service-resistant” homeless people who have learned to keep their guard up. Once they drop their guard, advocates can engage them in a more straightforward way, guiding them to services and housing.
The plan’s other new initiatives include a public-private Homeless Trust through the Greater New Orleans Foundation to finance “innovative and bold initiatives” to serve the city’s homeless, a 24-hour homeless-service center housed at the now-shuttered VA hospital building, and a new partnership between the city and the Downtown Development District to finance street outreach to clear high-traffic areas downtown.
The city also will add nearly 3,000 permanent-housing beds to its current stock along with a few hundred additional shelter beds. And its Office of Community Development will give preferences in its affordable-housing work to developers who commit to serving homeless constituents.
Hundreds of other cities and states have created similar plans to end homelessness, and the federal government released its own plan last year. But it’s been six years since New Orleans wrote such a plan. The result “helps to galvanize the entire community around the tragedy of homelessness, ” said Martha Kegel, who heads up UNITY of Greater New Orleans, a continuum of 60 social-services agencies that work with the homeless.
First, they need a home
Even 25 years ago, few would have broached the idea of ending homelessness. Administrators who ran soup kitchens and shelters tried to keep people comfortable, but they believed that people needed to be “housing-ready” before they could move into their own places, that alcoholics needed to first get sober and mentally ill people needed to take medication regularly. Some shelters still operate that way.
But a few decades ago, researcher Dennis Culhane found that the “chronically homeless,” who have often lived for years on the streets, make up only 10 percent of the homeless population but consume the bulk of services. Culhane, now the head of a University of Pennsylvania social-service lab, found that the chronically homeless ran up annual public-service bills topping $42,000 as they cycled through emergency rooms, jails, courts, hospitals and shelters.
For about $1,000 more, Culhane estimated, the city could place these vulnerable people into government-subsidized apartments, combined with intensive social services. Soon other ground-breaking work created a successful template for what’s now called “Housing First,” which moves even the most ill, vulnerable homeless people into permanent housing.
New Orleans’ proportion of chronically homeless is twice that of other cities, and those are the people who often are seen camped out in public areas. But since Katrina, UNITY agencies and the city have made a significant dent in that population by housing more than 2,000 people who had previously set up bedrolls in the city’s abandoned buildings and within large squalid camps in Duncan Plaza, underneath Interstate 10 at Canal Street and, most recently, under the Pontchartrain Expressway.
Most advocates and government officials now believe that what the homeless most need is housing. Other problems, no matter how large, are best addressed once someone has a roof over his head. “Housing, and the availability of affordable housing, is the ultimate solution to homelessness, ” the city’s plan declares.
Family homelessness has been increasing in recent years, and so the city’s plan, like the federal plan it mirrors, specifies steps to address that growing group, a casualty of the national recession.
“The chronic homeless are basically recession-proof,” said Don Thompson, who runs the Harry Tompson Center for the homeless at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church on Tulane Avenue. “But any uptick you see in families is almost always going to be due to the economy.”
Nationally, at some point during each year, up to 10 percent of all poor people become homeless, according to the Urban Institute. That revolving door may be busier in New Orleans because of its high poverty rate.
One of the challenges acknowledged by the city’s plan is tracking people and coordinating those resources to better combat homelessness at its earlier stages — before, as Horn-Koch says, they become the “most vulnerable.”
Horn-Koch previously led Covenant House New Orleans, a facility for homeless youth, where she saw children delivered by state foster-care workers days before their 18th birthday, when the state is no longer responsible for their care. So she knows first-hand the need for the plan’s emphasis on “discharge planning,” which ensures that people leaving hospitals, prisons and foster care exit to a stable home, not the streets. Other cities have found that 60 percent of those in homeless shelters came directly from some sort of institution: a hospital or the foster and correctional systems.
In recent years, New Orleans has made significant inroads into homelessness, using $9 million of federal stimulus money along with a special set-aside from Road Home money designed to help low-wage families struggling to pay high post-Katrina rents. Between the two pots of money, nearly 4,000 households, most of them working-poor families, were able to stay in their homes because the city helped them pay a few months’ rent, a damage deposit or light bill.
Although that money is spent, the city plan predicts it will continue its homeless-prevention work, helping an average of 600 families a year. How it will be financed is unclear. Without the prevention money, the current system is largely focused on very ill, chronically homeless people.
UNITY street-outreach workers use a questionnaire that tests for a range of high-risk factors. Using scores from the “vulnerability index,” the agency ranks everyone. People who are most likely to die without housing receive the highest priority for the agency’s limited supply of government-subsidized housing accompanied by ongoing social services.
But a growing number of people who have lived on the streets of New Orleans for more than a year are not severely disabled and as a result “will never score high enough on the vulnerability index” to get housed, Horn-Koch said. And without a stable place to sleep and bathe, it’s nearly impossible for even able-bodied people to find work, she said. As a result, some will stay homeless for too long, becoming more ill and dysfunctional.
Thompson said that he, too, believes an expansion of services makes sense if the ultimate goal is to end all homelessness. He’s hopeful about the new plan, but he also worries that, without considerably expanded resources, the vision could become a system that elbows out some of the most ill.
Katy Reckdahl can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3396.